Influence of Far-Right Parties on Mainstream Politics: UK and Germany

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01/04/19 Politics Reference this

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Would you say that the success of far-right parties has an impact on the positions of mainstream parties? In your essay, consider at least two countries to make your argument.

The influence of far-right parties on mainstream parties has remained a relatively undeveloped area in political literature with many instead writing explanatory pieces on the emergence of such parties (Williams, 2006). This is because far-right parties have been largely successful across a great deal of Europe in recent years. To highlight this, in Britain there was the brief, but meaningful rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in Germany the Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD), in Austria the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and in France the Front Nationale to name but a few. This essay will argue that the success of these far-right parties has brought around changes in the more mainstream, centre-ground parties in two ways; both in regards to ideological position, and in reference to their position in government. This essay will also argue that the size of this impact on ideology depends greatly on the original position of the mainstream party on the political spectrum. There is a great distinction between a rightward leaning party’s reactions to a far-right party’s success and a leftward leaning party’s reaction. However, this essay ultimately concludes that it is impossible to state that the mainstream parties’ reactions are as a direct result of far-right parties. This is because there are a great deal of political influences that could impact the positions of mainstream parties. Moreover, the terms “mainstream parties” and “far-right parties” must be defined to effectively argue the magnitude of any impact. The phrase mainstream parties refers to the more traditional, often relatively centre, parties that do not hold extremist views. On the other hand, far-right parties are essentially political parties characterised by being on the right of mainstream parties ideologically, or those who promote xenophobia and the social exclusion of non-nationals (Williams, 2006).

Academics argue that far-right parties certainly influence the ideological position of mainstream parties for several reasons which will be explained shortly. Moreover, mainstream parties that align themselves on the right side of the political spectrum undergo greater changes. Right-wing parties are evidently more open to ideological change as a result of far-right emergence, whereas left-wing parties are a great deal more resilient for reasons that shall be explained. The following two paragraphs detail the differences between the ideological reactions of originally left leaning mainstream parties and originally right leaning mainstream parties towards far-right parties.

In regards to right-wing, traditional, mainstream parties, the far-right parties essentially drain the further right, more extreme section, of their voter base. These individual voters previously had no viable alternative beforehand, and therefore aligned with the closest party to their view which had a chance of success to avoid a wasted vote. With the emergence of a far-right party, the individual voter has a party closer to their own political belief and thus supports the far-right party instead, sapping the original mainstream party of votes. To counteract this effect, the mainstream parties must appeal to these lost voters by shifting their ideology rightwards, even if it be by a single policy. This is since, according to the single-issue party thesis, many far-right parties are essentially single policy pressure groups in regards to immigration with many political commentators referring to them as the anti-immigration parties (Mudde, 1999). For example, it was said by Wright and Cooper, that the United Kingdom Independence Party was draining the Conservative party’s more fringe supporters by offering a manifesto pledge of a Brexit referendum. Thus, the more centre-ground party, the Conservatives in this case, had to second that promise to stop their support from leaving them for UKIP. Hence, this is the reason why we saw a 2015 general election manifesto promise of a Brexit referendum from the Conservatives. As Wright and Cooper (2016) put it, in 2015 “for Tory MPs facing re-election this [UKIP’s success in polling] looked ominous. They were worried, not that Ukip [sic] would take their seats but they would take enough of their votes to hand victory to Labour.” Therefore, to ensure victory the Conservatives had to lurch rightward on the political scale. Han argued that this outcome showcased the fact that far-right parties could benefit by pulling mainstream parties towards their own ideological positions (Han, 2014).

The emergence and success of far-right parties can arguably cause centre ground, mainstream parties to lurch to the right on single policy issues to stop them losing specific voting blocks. Han rightfully states that “the electoral success of RRPs [Radical right-wing parties] is believed to have applied pressure… to mainstream parties (MPs) on both sides of the political spectrum” (Han, 2014) and therefore we must speak not only of right-wing mainstream parties, but also those who are more leftward leaning. Left leaning mainstream parties are much less likely to have ideological waverings since many members of those parties have fundamentally different political beliefs, which are at ends with the policies of far-right parties. Moreover, left leaning parties are aware that they cannot simply politically “flip-flop” or “U-turn” on key policies as Kollman, Miller and Page rightfully state that “voters may be wary of a party that moves across the ideological spectrum in search of votes” (Kollman, Miller & Page, 1998, p141). This opinion of how parties making gross changes in stance can ruin party legitimacy is furthered in Tavits’ work (Tavits, 2007). “Adhering to certain values serves the purpose of defining a party’s identity and helping to build a reputation of commitment, consistency, and probity. Ideological movement devalues these reputations.” In short, left-leaning mainstream parties are simply not influenced to the same extent as right leaning mainstream parties by far-right parties, because of “historical ideological commitments” (Bale et al, 2010).

However, when looking at these sources critically it is possible to see that the impact of far-right parties on mainstream parties is limited. This limitation is a key argument of this essay. When comparing Han’s, Bale’s and Tavits’ articles, with Akkerman’s we see this disparity between academics’ beliefs on the topic. Akkerman used a different data set, which analysed a total of 176 manifestos and concluded that “the impact of radical right parties on mainstream policy agendas tends to be overestimated” (Akkerman, 2015). The fact that different data yielded such different results would suggest that far-right party’s influence is impossible to see isolated from other political influences. While Akkerman still concurs that mainstream parties are indeed influenced, he states the extent to which they are influenced is debatable. This essay argues that correlation is not necessarily causation; just because select data sets show a correlation between the far-right’s rise and manifesto changes does not mean one caused the other. There are a great deal of political agents that can influence a party’s manifesto, and therefore to state a change in a mainstream party’s manifesto is as a result of a far-right party is a statement that fails to look at the wider political picture. In this case there are several academics that link these manifesto changes to other causes. For example, “Jeanette Money makes a convincing case that the move towards restriction in Britain and France long pre-dated the emergence of the extreme-right, and was linked to electoral dynamics” (Money, cited in Schain, 1999). Therefore, whilst the claims of Han, Bale et al and Tavits are duly noted, Akkerman’s criticism of the claims being overstated carries with it a weight too large to ignore. The fact that another data set produced such different results, in tandem with bringing to mind all the possible influences on mainstream parties’ manifestos, showcases how the possible influence of far-right parties is difficult to determine.

Another debatable aspect of the question comes with the term “position”. Hitherto, position has been discussed in the sense of ideological position on the political spectrum. However, the position of a party can also be seen in reference to their position in the political system. More simply the mainstream parties’ potential position in government, such as majority or minority party or the opposition party. Similarly, in regards to position in governance, the original ideological position of the party makes a difference as to how they react; leftist parties experience greater opposition whereas right-wing parties experience this whilst also losing potential voters and therefore power. The following two paragraphs highlight the ways that the potential governmental position of a mainstream party is impacted by the success of a far-right party.

When there are more far-right parties being “successful”, consequently mainstream parties, as well as the far-left parties, must inherently be less successful. The mainstream parties are more likely to be influenced by this as it is unlikely for an individual voter to take such a great leap from the far-left to the far-right. When one considers that many European countries utilise proportional representation the truthfulness of that statement is laid bare, for each percentage point of a far-right party’s success is directly proportional to the amount any other mainstream party loses. Thus, any success of a far-right party is detrimental to a mainstream party’s position in governance. As a result, mainstream parties will find it harder to gain a position of power due to potential voters, voting for these populist, far-right parties.  In many cases this will mean far-right parties will be members of the opposition in government. This is in part due to the proportional representation systems used across consensus democracies in Europe. However, in some cases, such as in Austria, it can also mean they may form the actual government. The Austrian People’s Party (OVP) will likely form a coalition with the FPO (a far-right party) to have a total of 104 seats, following provisional exit poll results, when 92 is a majority. Whilst a minority OVP government is still an alternative (Oltermann, 2017), the FPO’s success has still influenced the governmental position of the OVP. This means the OVP’s position and power in governance is highly influenced by the success of this far-right party.

Moreover, the success of far-right parties can also impact the position of a party in government as it impacts the mainstream party’s reputation. The rise of a far-right party during the tenure of a specific leader can be detrimental to that leader’s reputation, which in turn is often detrimental to the mandate of the party in power. Take for example Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor for Germany since 2005, it has been said that she “has secured a fourth term as German chancellor but with her authority diminished, after… [she] failed to halt the march of rightwing populists” (Connolly, 2017). The rise, rather than the emergence of AfD, under Merkel has threatened the Christian Democratic Union of Germany’s approval and authority in the German political sphere. Alternative für Deutschland achieved a historic third place success, holding 13% of the vote according to exit polls, which marked the first time in almost six decades that an openly nationalist party will enter the Bundestag (Connolly, 2017). The rise of an anti-establishment party under a well cemented member of the establishment, would suggest that Merkel is leading the electorate to become disenchanted with standard democratic institutions.  This obviously reflects poorly on Merkel’s governance and tenure, and overall reduces her authority. Therefore, it is relatively apparent how the rise of any far-right parties under a political agent’s leadership is seen as detrimental to their mandate and character.

To conclude, there are a great deal of theories as to what extent the far-right influences mainstream parties, as explained in this essay with reference to Han, Bale et al and Tavits. However, these theories do not consistently hold true when using other data sets, and fail to look at all the other possible influences that could cause mainstream parties to change. Several academics state the success of far-right parties indubitably impacts both the ideological position (Han, 2015) and position in government of mainstream parties. Ideologically, far-right parties are able to drag right-wing mainstream parties towards the right, but are less effective at pulling left-wing mainstream parties rightwards (Han, 2015) due to historical ideological commitments (Bale et al, 2010). In reference to government, far-right parties are able to influence the position of mainstream parties by taking potential voters reducing their majority, by influencing their position in a coalition and by weakening the authority and perception of their leader. However, as Akkerman states, it is easy to overstate the influence of far-right parties on mainstream parties (Akkerman, 2015). Moreover, to quantify the exact influence that far-right parties have on mainstream parties is impossible; for example it is simply not feasible to state all manifesto changes are as a direct result of their growing influence.

Bibliography:

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